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Six Sources of Influence in Project Management

Dear Crucial Skills,

My supervisor often gives me leadership responsibility for projects involving multiple departments. However, my position is not viewed as one of authority. As a result, I struggle to get results from others when I ask them to do something. When I present my lack of progress and ask for assistance, I’m told I need to stop blaming others for my lack of results. Since I have been trained to teach Crucial Conversations, my supervisor assumes I should be able to convince others to shift their priorities. Unfortunately, people outside of my department are not able to make my request their priority, no matter how many Crucial Conversations skills I employ.

How do I get my supervisor to see that I need her support without making her think I am blaming others? I am at the end of my rope!

Without Support

Dear Without,

You are not alone. When I was teaching at Stanford’s Advanced Project Management Program this was the participants’ most frequent concern. You’re given a lot of accountability but no authority, and you’re expected to use your skills and charm to get it all done.

It doesn’t work that way, does it?

Our communication courses focus on dialogue skills—the skills required to reach shared understanding and commitment. These skills would be all you needed if the lack of cooperation you were experiencing was the exception, not the rule. However, it sounds as if it’s the rule, and that tells me you need to change the rules. You need a structural solution—a solution that involves all six sources of influence and the Crucial Influence Model.

The situation you describe calls for a project-management system, one that people buy into and have the skills to use. Then it requires holding people accountable to the system—not just to your individual projects.

I will walk through the influence model found in our book and course Crucial Influence to help you solve this problem. The process starts with identifying measurable results you want to achieve; next, you identify a few key behaviors that, if changed, will bring about those results; and finally, you must outline strategies to accomplish your vital behaviors using six different sources of influence.

Measurable Results

Your goal is to ensure project schedules, budgets, and specs are met.

It sounds as if your projects have to compete with employees’ other tasks. That’s to be expected. The problem occurs when your projects never get a high enough priority, or when the priority gets bumped. Instead of focusing on your project, focus on the overall project-planning and project management process. Your goal is to get people to commit to a fair process—one that meets their objectives as well as yours. Then your challenge is to help everyone stick to the process. Become a champion for the process, not just your project. This change will create greater mutual purpose.

Vital Behaviors

The vital behaviors you’ll want to focus on influencing are:

  1. Prioritizing all of your project’s tasks against people’s competing tasks.
  2. Ensuring that people who complete the tasks have input into the project management plan and sign up to deliver on realistic schedules, budgets, and specs.
  3. Ensuring that when people have reason to believe they could miss a schedule, budget, or spec, they will immediately update the team on the problem.

The Six Sources of Influence

The six sources of influence and specific strategies you’ll need to target are as follows.

Source of Influence 1 – Personal Motivation

The people you rely on are feeling a lot of pain. Their plates are too full; they feel as if they have five bosses; and they’re constantly being blindsided with new unexpected demands. Instead of turning up the heat regarding your projects, get their buy-in to a more consistent project management process—one that has realistic priorities and plans.

Source of Influence 2 – Personal Ability

You and your colleagues may have to learn basic project-management principles. Look for resources that are already available within your firm, such as a project-management specialist. Once you have a project-management system in place, you’ll find your Crucial Conversations skills will become more powerful.

Sources of Influence 3 & 4 –Social Influence & Ability

The most important and influential social support you need is from your manager and the managers your resource people report to. They need to fully support and influence a more robust project-management system. Ease their concerns that the priority-setting process may take more time and is less flexible by demonstrating how results are delivered far more reliably.

Source of Influence 5 – Structural Motivation

I bet the employees you count on are rewarded for achieving results within their own departments, and not for achieving your goals. Goals that require cross-functional teamwork are often shortchanged. Work with your manager and the resource managers to find ways to reward people for executing on their plans and for keeping to the project-planning process you’ve outlined. Even tiny changes to these reward systems will send a powerful message that managers are serious.

Source of Influence 6 – Structural Ability

This entire approach relies on implementing and influencing a project-management structure. Check to see if you already have one that’s gone dormant. Check to see if your organization has a Project Management Office that can help you re-invigorate your project structure. Here are some basic structural elements I’d want to see:

  • A priority-setting process that involves the right stakeholders; 
  • A project planning process that results in realistic schedules, budgets, and specs; 
  • Project status meetings that keep the projects on track; 
  • A measurement system that provides ongoing feedback on how well people are keeping to their project plans.

Report Back to your Manager

Meet with your manager and frame the larger issue. It isn’t just about executing your projects; it’s about executing any and all projects. Bring in whatever facts you can to back up your case. If you don’t have data on missed deadlines, budget overruns, and failures to meet specs, then bring in examples of the problems: for example, people have unclear priorities, priorities that constantly change, objectives that aren’t realistic, and no clear project plans to follow. Explain that solving this larger problem is the best way to solve your specific problem.

Best of luck in influencing your organization.


Do you face a tough team or organizational challenge? Consider Crucial Consulting. Our consultants can help you apply the Crucial Influence Model to change behavior for lasting results. Download the overview to learn more.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

8 thoughts on “Six Sources of Influence in Project Management”

  1. Jan

    Although you list the classic recommendations for success with a project, I feel that you missed what this person was really asking:
    “My supervisor often gives me leadership responsibility for projects involving multiple departments. However, my position is not viewed as one of authority. As a result, I struggle to get results from others when I ask them to do something.”

    Having been in this situation more than once, the real issue is about position and authority. No matter how good one’s leadership skills are, if you are working with people in higher positions or who may think they are in a higher position, they see no reason to participate. I’m thinking that they are feeling, “well, if her manager thinks this is so important, why isn’t he/she here? And why should I be here?” Then, these same people will send a substitute and then nobody has the authority to make decisions. The project is often stalled or comes to a complete standstill.

    One of my managers said, “It doesn’t matter what your position is or what salary you make when leading a group.” I asked him if he would like to demote and take on the task. He sheepishly declined.

    Could you address this issue?

    Thank you,

    Janet Elizabeth Peters

  2. Amy Cooney

    I was the author of this letter, and that is exactly the issue. the scanario you describe was a daily problem, there are many “stalled projects” within the organization.
    I have since been “downsized” from this position, and frankly, I was relieved!
    I do appreciate the project management suggestions, and I agree that is exactly what is needed, but if it costs money to buy the tools for such a system, it will not happen. The organization is historically “penny wise and pound foolish”.
    Thank you for responding!
    Amy Cooney

  3. Shana


    I appreciate the information you provided; however, I agree with the previous comments in that I don’t believe you addressed the issue. I have been regularly put in a position similar to the one described in the letter. In my situation, my supervisor hired me as a manger, yet I have recently learned that he has for years been telling others in our organization that they are not responsible to me. He also regularly contradicts my efforts when put on the spot by others, even though he has specifically asked me to accomplish these tasks. I’ve have tried numerous times to hold crucial conversations with my boss only to be repeatedly undermined. Sadly, along with the person who posed the question, I am at the end of my rope. I feel that I am a better person for having learned some of the crucial conversation skills; however, I feel constant failure for being unable to find means to bring forth honesty from the other person in the conversation. Regularly being held accountable for items which I am not permitted the means to accomplish is ruining my career while providing my boss a perfect place to place blame for his own shortcomings. Are there times when crucial conversations just aren’t enough?

  4. David Maxfield

    Amy, I’m sorry I missed the heart of your concern, and thanks to all of you for following up and elaborating on the issue. I’ll take a look at it from another perspective.

    My original suggestion was to take the spotlight off of yourself, your individual project, and your manager. Instead, I suggested you put the spotlight on the process. If people understand the process and believe that following it is in their interest, then they will hold each other accountable, and you won’t have to play the heavy.

    But what if the situation makes status and position as important as knowledge and expertise? Janet describes a case where the messenger is just as important as the message.

    Or what if the problem is a boss who undermines you? The third writer describes a manager who contradicts her, tells others they don’t report to her, and blames her for his own shortcomings.

    First, I want us to remind ourselves that the most common mistake we make is to give up too soon. We need to guard against our own victim, villain, and helpless stories—the clever stories that let us off the hook for trying to solve a situation. When we give up we’re left with two unappealing options: a.) We can hunker down and try to ignore the problem. This approach makes us co-conspirators in the very problem we detest. b.) We can leave the organization or relationship. This approach may be costly in many ways—but may work out in the long run.

    But I’m not ready to give up yet, and here’s why. Each of the three comments paints a picture of a boss in trouble. Whatever it is that your boss is doing—it isn’t working for him or her. If you can find a solution that makes your boss’s life better, he or she might leap to embrace it.

    I’ll suggest spending some more time defining the problem—using our CPR skill. CPR stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship.

    Content: The immediate problem, incident, or experience. (Example: “Senior leaders aren’t returning my calls or following through on their commitments. This is causing my project to suffer.”)

    Pattern: The pattern of similar problems or experiences you’ve seen over time. (Example: Senior leaders expect to meet with someone at their level. It’s not that they are questioning my expertise, but they want to work with someone who has the authority to make key policy and budget decisions.”)

    Relationship: How the relationship is involved with the problem (Example: “When you send me to meet with a senior leader it signals to them that you think this is a purely technical project. But they see it as a policy issue. They aren’t ready to talk to me about how to do it until they’ve talked to you about whether to do it. When you don’t come to the meeting they feel disrespected and won’t cooperate.”)

    Often we make the mistake of focusing on Content, when the real problem is either Pattern or Relationship. There is a good chance that your boss doesn’t understand the Pattern and Relationship challenges you both are facing. All your boss sees is the immediate Content, and you’re a convenient scapegoat for that. But your boss’s failure to solve the Pattern and Relationship issues is hurting him or her, not just you. If you can frame the real problem, maybe your boss will find a way to become your partner.

    Note: Of course “communication” is not always the appropriate solution. Sometimes we need to escape a bad or dangerous situation; other times we need to take immediate action. And we can’t save every relationship every time. But we can save far more than we might think.

    1. C. Phillipps

      We run into this problem a lot, and I’m intrigued by the idea of focusing on the pattern rather than the immediate issue. We have trouble with getting prioritization because we have no stick in my department – there’s no downside if they don’t prioritize us.
      But I do wonder if I come to them and say hey, we’ve had a pattern of this issue and want to figure out a workable solution because we both think this situation is bad, maybe we can come up with something.
      Thanks for the idea.

  5. Amy Cooney

    Thank you for this response. I think you have hit the nail on the head.I will encourage my collegue, who still reports to this person to take this advice!
    As for myself,I think my position being eliminated was for the best. I am far happier in my current position, and feel I have the respect of my supervisors.
    Thanks again,

  6. Stephen

    If a boss is actively undermining you (as in Shana’s) case, your value is apparently as the scapegoat itself. I too experienced this in my last job. My boss was so insecure that he wouldn’t let any of us succeed. He got his kicks out of messing with his staff and no conversation was going to change that. My Crucial Conversation with HIS boss on my way out did nothing and I hear that nothing has changed. Quickly leaving a bad situation (after less than a year) landed me in a brand new field focused on what I want to do and with a wonderful boss. Sometimes you’ve just got to move on.

  7. Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference — Penny Walker’s blog

    […] table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered […]

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